What Christmas Gives Our Post-Christian Culture

In our culture, we are obsessed with one thing: ourselves. In the absence of any transcendent significance to life, creating, loving, and fulfilling the self fills the vacuum. Youngsters are taught from a very early stage–often in schools–to trust in themselves, to know that they are princesses and princes, and to be assured that they can do anything to which they set their minds. 

It is perhaps not surprising that in an age when secular scientists insist we are exclusively material beings and tell us that there is no "self" other than our biological functions, the longing to find a self hs taken on epidemic proportions. People can "self-identify" as this or that. Thus self-directed love is seen as the fundamental birthright, even while our governments take it upon themselves to decide when there is a self who has the right to birth. 

The problem, as Augustine saw so clearly, is that amor sui (self-directed love) leads to personal and societal disaster whenever it is severed from amor dei (God-directed love). Of course, there is a proper love of self. Jesus said we should love our neighbor as ourselves, so the implication is that we will love the latter too. But why is that not the same as self-love? Because it isn't self-directed loved. Instead, it is rooted in realizing that since we are made as the image of God, we should treat his image with respect and care, and we should do the same to others, who likewise are the image of God. The secular humanist who denies that humans were created as the image of God, thus makes man out to be far less than he is seen to be in Christian teaching.

In fact, Christians are the higher humanists; secularists, by comparison, are de-humanists and reduce the dignity of man. Yet, despite it all, men and women remain the image of God, and inevitably they thirst for significance even though they cannot explain thy. So long as that is the case, Augustine's most famous words remain true: God has made us for himself (we are his image) and our hearts are therefore restless until they find their rest in him. But left to ourselves, all we have is ourselves. Indeed, as some secularists have had the courage to say, in this worldview there simply is no meaning to life; there are no answers to what have always been thought to be the ultimate questions: Why is there something and not nothing? Who am I? What is the purpose of life? What is my destiny?

If we have to invent our own answers to these questions, it is hardly surprising that amor sui is promoted so vigorously. Yet the questions cannot be suppressed, even when we repress them. Is there no answer to them? Perhaps Lily in Jane Wagner's play, The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe is right when she says, "I worry where tonight fits in the cosmic scheme of things." And then she adds: "I worry there is no cosmic scheme to things." 

Christmas says there is a cosmic scheme of things. God made us as his image to reflect his glory. We have sinned and fallen short of that glory (Romans 3 v 23). But the Son of God, who is the very image of God (Colossians 1 v 15), was sent by God and came in love to restore his image. Through faith in him, we discover that our lives fit into "the cosmic scheme of things." He recreates in us a love for himself and restores us to fellowship with himself, which transforms self-directed love into love of our neighbors.

That is the destiny for which we were created. in this way, the birth of Christ leads to our rebirth (John 1 v 9-13). That new birth sets us free from the tyranny of the project of the self. In Christ, we enter a "new creation", where life begins to make ultimate sense (2 Corinthians 5 v 17). And since we have found our true identity in Christ, we are no longer left to our own devices to try to discover who we really are. 

Here is a neat little summary of what happened at that first Christmas from the early fathers of the Christian church: "Christ became what he was not in order that we might become what we were not." In order to fill us, the Son of God emptied himself; and in order to give us life, the Song of God became obedient to death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2 v 5-11). And when we trust him, we too die to self and begin to live for him and for others. For he died "that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised." This, says Paul, takes place when "the love of Christ controls us" (2 Corinthians 5 v 14-15). The incarnation of the Son of God was a radical event. and the gospel is a radical message.

Jesus said that the discovery of self always involves losing or denying self (Luke 9 v 24). And what does denying ourselves look like? Often, it looks like not insisting on our own way when we could, and instead of laying down our preferences for the sake of others. Sometimes that means that we won't insist on celebrating Christmas with that particular part of the family or in this particular way or with those particular traditions. We won't insist that we're too tired to help with the washing up. Instead, we will choose to love, and "love…does not insist on its own way." In George MacDonald's fantasy tale The Golden Key, one of the characters, Tangle, meets the Old Man of the Earth, who gives her further directions in her life-quest: 

Then the Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down. "That is the way," he said. "But there are no stairs." "You must throw yourself in. There is no other way." 

The discovery of who we were created to be takes place in the same way. There are no stairs: you need to throw yourself into the love of Christ. It is an all-or-nothing thing. In trusting him, you will lose your life, but at the same time, you will find it. You must die to self to find yourself. And then you will be set free from the self-love that has crippled you all your life. but you must first "throw yourself in. There is no other way." Jesus said that there is only one way to the Father, himself (John 14 v 6). And the fact that he came at Christmas means that you can thro yourself into loving selflessly today. 

This content taken from Love Came Down at Christmas: Daily Readings for Advent by Sinclair Ferguson. Used by permission The Good Book Co. 

Photo of Sinclair B. Ferguson

Sinclair B. Ferguson

Dr Sinclair B Ferguson is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor's Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary since 2017, commuting from Scotland where he is an assistant minister at St. Peter's Free Church of Scotland, Dundee.

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